Greenpeace yesterday accused the agribusiness giant Monsanto of seeking to monopolise one of the world's main food crops, soya (wild and cultivated varieties), which originates from China. China is regarded as the centre of diversity for soya with more 6000 existing wild varieties.

At the start of the United Nations (U.N.) Conference on Biodiversity this week in Bonn, Germany, Greenpeace revealed Monsanto's application for a patent, which would grant the company an exclusive right on soy plants, their seeds and progeny with high yield traits. Monsanto claims rights to a natural gene sequence discovered in wild plants originating from China. This sequence is directly linked to yield characteristics of the soybeans. The patent application (1) was filed simultaneously in over a hundred countries, including the US and countries in Europe. "Monsanto is a ruthless biopirate. The company tries to hijack the genetic resources of a major food crop - basing their claim on a discovery of a gene sequence found in nature. Once this gene sequence is identified even in wild plant, Monsanto has an exclusive right to profit from it," said Sze Ping Lo, Genetic Engineering campaigner for Greenpeace China. "As 90% of the world's wild soya is growing in China, the patent would have large scale consequences. Chinese scientists were shocked when Greenpeace informed them of the applications."

The patent, blocking both farmers and researchers from freely accessing the soy with the high yield trait, has not yet been approved. The European Patent Office in Munich has raised doubts about the patent in its initial evaluation. However, both in Europe and in the USA numerous patents, regarded as cases of biopiracy by Greenpeace, have been granted.

"This case demonstrates how corporations like Monsanto are plundering nature," said Christoph Then, Greenpeace expert on patents. "Patent law is privatising the foundations of life on this planet. As soon as genes are identified and described they can be declared 'inventions' by the companies. We are urging the delegates of the UN Conference to send a clear signal opposing industry-controlled monopolies on biodiversity."

The UN Conference participants are aiming to agree on a system of fair access and benefit sharing arrangements regarding the use of biological diversity. Participating delegations represent more than 180 member countries of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, one of the main achievements of the U.N. Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.